You've just fallen off your project for the fifth time, and now you're back on the ground wondering what to do next. You're still psyched and ready to give it another go, and that forearm burn isn't too bad. But should you rest? If so, how long? Should you keep moving or conserve energy? Hard bouldering and sport climbing don’t fatigue a body as much as running a marathon, which can take even an elite runner several days to bounce back from. But how quickly you recover and how well your body is fueled greatly affect your climbing performance.
Every effort on a problem or route spends stored energy. When that energy is depleted, you feel fatigued, and your performance can suffer. What you do to mitigate that will be a deciding factor for sending your project or trying again another day. There are so many performance variables (conditioning, temperature, skill set, nutrition, anxiety) that the best recovery formula will be unique to each climber. Explore the following four physiological components to determine what strategy is best for you.
1. Length of resting time
While there are numerous elements to consider (age, climbing experience, current fitness, etc.) when determining how long you should rest between burns, recent sports-science research has indicated that a 5:1 rest-to-work ratio is an excellent starting point. That means you should rest five minutes for every one minute you "work"; in this case, climbing is work. If you"re on a problem for approximately 30 seconds, then rest at least 2.5 minutes between attempts.
Climbs with harder holds or moves (think small holds on an overhang) can increase rest time, while climbs with more static postures (think technical and vertical) can decrease resting time. Assuming it is a project at your limit, erring on the side of more rest is better. For sport climbers, a good starting point is to rest about 20 minutes between burns. Rapid-firing your boulder project, or jumping on it before you're properly warmed up, is something I did for years before one of my stronger friends told me about how legendary Swiss climber Fred Nicole approaches projects at his limit. Nicole waits for the right temperature, strives for mental "readiness," warms up properly (climbing easier problems, active stretching, etc.), and focuses on all-out effort.
Stuart McGill, in Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, a book many strength coaches consider the bible of core-strength literature, describes research that shows loss of core strength when seated in "prolonged lumbar flexion," or sitting hunched over on your crashpad. If you sit this way for 20 minutes or more at one time while out bouldering, you lose significant neurological signaling to your spine extensor muscles, and you will have to warm up again. This not only wastes precious time, but also increases fatigue. Instead, sit against a support of some sort, with your back in a neutral position—not bent or twisted, but straight and relaxed. Research has also shown that active rest is best; rather than climbing more, simply take a 15-minute walk along the base of the crag.
Contrary to popular belief (and what you might see every climber doing), static stretching of the forearms might do more harm than good. This type of stretching—where you keep your arm still and pull the hand forward or backward—reduces strength at the muscle-tendon junction while you're climbing. If you feel you must stretch, hold it for less than five seconds at a time—this should not reduce strength. However, all climbers should statically stretch after climbing. Focus on forearms, biceps, lats, and shoulders to maintain flexibility and promote muscle recovery so you can climb or train in following days.
Training expert and author Eric Hörst (trainingforclimbing.com) recommends “G-Tox” (shaking hands above and below heart level for five seconds each) mid-climb and between climbs, which will reduce blood pooling in the forearms. You can also try some massage techniques (fig. 1): With a knee in the crook of your elbow, push down on your forearm. Move your hand up, down, left, right, and in circles to move blood through your arms, which will decrease the pump.
One body part you should stretch just before climbing is your hips. Climbers generally have inflexible hips, and the gain in flexibility can outweigh minimal strength loss because it's such a large and powerful muscle group. Hip turnout with the inner thigh against the wall is very important to create good body position, and many men (especially over 30) are super tight this way. You can stretch these muscles by standing with feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointed slightly out. Drop your butt straight down between your feet. Use your elbows on your inner thighs to push your legs outward as you sit deeply in the stretch (fig. 2).
Eating the right foods to fuel you and keep your body running while climbing is just as important as what you consume while training. You need carbohydrates and protein for energy, performance, and recovery. Recent sports-science studies suggest that carb intake during (not just before or after) longer bouts of high-intensity activity (like a full day of climbing) can improve performance, and consuming protein will assist in the short-term absorption of those carbs. Along with that, carbohydrate ingestion 10 to 60 minutes before climbing will ensure optimal performance. Simple sugars are best: Your muscles get the energy delivered quickly, and they’re easier to digest. Fruit is ideal, especially high glycemic-index foods like bananas and grapes.
Consuming carbs during a day of climbing is individualized, in that it depends on the difficulty of the climbing or bouldering and whether your digestive system can handle carb-heavy snacks while working hard. If you can't stomach bars or whole foods, then a drink with simple sugar (e.g., Gatorade) will suffice; that sugar is what you need (ideally along with some caffeine and electrolytes) to perform at maximum capacity. Carbohydrate absorption is typically around 0.5 to 1g/min; therefore, only small amounts of carbs at a time are necessary (think a Hershey Kiss candy or half a banana). Consuming a little bit at a time is easier for your body to absorb and utilize; plus, a small amount will be less likely to upset your stomach while you're working hard.
It's also important to stay hydrated throughout a day of climbing, and the best way to monitor your level of hydration is to check urine color. It should be light yellow to clear; the darker it gets, the more dehydrated you are and the worse your performance will be. Dehydration leads to muscle cramps, limits flexibility, and adds to your fatigue. A general guideline is one to two cups of water per hour—more if you're in high temperatures or at altitude. Below is a quick formula to determine how much carbs and protein you’ll need in a day when climbing, based on your body weight:
Bouldering: Approximately 2.2g carbs/lb. and 0.7g protein/lb.
Sport Climbing: Approximately 3.3g carbs/lb. and 0.7g protein/lb.
Rest period refresh
Sip a drink with sugar and caffeine.
Eat a small bite of fruit.
Watch a video of your climb and review it for mechanical flaws.
Stretch your hips.
Sit in a neutral position with back straight.
Wait 20 minutes between burns if sport climbing, or use a 5:1 rest-to-work ratio.
Don't jump on your project without properly warming up.
Don't rope up to climb immediately after your partner lowers.
Don't statically stretch your forearms right before climbing.
Don't eat too little or too much.
Don't sit hunched over on a crashpad.
Dave Wahl, MA, CSCS, is a teacher of health and human performance for the U.S. Department of Defense in Grafenwoehr, Germany. For more than 10 years, he was a strength and conditioning coach to elite climbers on Colorado’s Front Range.